The Abbey of St. Denis

Royalty Abounds!

Paris is a must-see destination for those interested in French royalty. But Paris is a very large city , one that has a long and distinguished history of kings and queens dating back 1,500 years. How can you absorb all of this in one visit? A trip to the Saint-Denis Basilica in northern Paris is the answer.

Located in the 20th arrondissement on the outskirts of Paris, the suburb of Saint Denis is not part of the list of places that tourists usually visit. The Saint Denis Basilica, however, is a historic gem that is well worth a long metro ride. The basilica stands on the spot where Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, was buried, martyred around 250 AD. Various churches were built there over time and the Benedictine abbey became very influential, so much so that King Pepin ( the short) was buried at the abbey in 754. From then until the French Revolution of 1789, almost all kings and queens (except three) were buried at Saint-Denis. That's over a thousand years of royalty in one place!

The turning point for Saint-Denis occurred in the 12th century with Abbot Suger. Suger was very close politically with King Louis VI, with whom he attended the school of Saint-Denis in his youth. With this political support, Suger had plenty of money and set about transforming the church into a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. In fact, Saint-Denis is considered the first Gothic church ever built.

Sparing no expense, Suger developed to perfection the pointed arch vault system, the addition of clerestory windows, flying buttresses to counteract the thrust of a much taller structure and the famous stained glass rose window. The effect was to let an incredible amount of light into the basilica, where previously the gloomy darkness of Roman architecture had reigned. Abbot Suger was a priest, and he maintained that this light was a symbol of the light of Christ. Walking under the Last Judgment (darkness) engraved on the tympanum above the front door, you enter the glorious light of the nave, fabulously colored by all the stained glass windows reflecting throughout. Suger's brilliant design highlighted the lighting that was so much a part of the Gothic style.

Everything inside the church is artistic. The choir stalls where the monks prayed were finely carved in wood by master carpenters. The pipe organ was the very first of its kind, built at a time in French history when there was no great French music composed or great organists to play the music. It was designed by Cavaille-Coll and is still played every Sunday. It is interesting to note that the second organ he designed is at Notre-Dame de l'Île de Cité.

But the most amazing part of the church interior are the tombs. Around the sanctuary or transept of the church are dozens of recumbent figures of kings and queens from the last 1000 years of French history. These include a life-size Marie Antoinette side by side with King Louis XVI, resplendent in white marble. and many other famous royals. Other treasures of the church include historical relics of saints of the past, a copy of the royal battle standard called the Oriflamme, and a huge underground crypt where the bones of kings and queens are buried in an ossuary royal. The crypt alone is worth a visit.

So, if you only have one day in Paris to soak up 15 centuries of royal tradition in the most historic church in Paris, hop on metro number 13, go to the penultimate stop and contemplate the dignity, sovereignty and eternal light of the Saint-Denis Basilica



1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis ~ To reach the Basilica, take the Paris metro, line 13, in the direction of Saint-Denis Université, getting off at the Basilique de Saint-Denis stop. See the website for ticket prices and hours. Note that if you have a Paris Museum pass, entrance to the Basilica is included.